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The Feathery Tribe

The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Feathery Tribe
    Book Description:

    Amateurs and professionals studying birds at the end of the nineteenth century were a contentious, passionate group with goals that intersected, collided and occasionally merged in their writings and organizations. Driven by a desire to advance science, as well as by ego, pride, honor, insecurity, religion and other clashing sensibilities, they struggled to absorb the implications of evolution after Darwin. In the process, they dramatically reshaped the study of birds.

    Daniel Lewis here explores the professionalization of ornithology through one of its key figures: Robert Ridgway, the Smithsonian Institution's first curator of birds and one of North America's most important natural scientists. Exploring a world in which the uses of language, classification and accountability between amateurs and professionals played essential roles, Lewis offers a vivid introduction to Ridgway and shows how his work fundamentally influenced the direction of American and international ornithology. He explores the inner workings of the Smithsonian and the role of collectors working in the field and reveals previously unknown details of the ornithological journalThe Aukand the untold story of the color dictionaries for which Ridgway is known.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18345-0
    Subjects: History, Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xxi)
  5. Transcription Notes
    (pp. xxii-xxii)
  6. CHAPTER ONE The Making of a Bird Man
    (pp. 1-34)

    ROBERT RIDGWAY, who between 1875 and 1925 was one of the best-known ornithologists in the world, is largely forgotten today. Through a series of circumstances related to scientific authority, the use of language, a bond with a senior scientist, access to a network of other like-minded colleagues, and a few lucky breaks, Ridgway began his career under the immensely influential imprimatur of the Smithsonian Institution. Although he was at times painfully shy, the tremendously talented and driven Ridgway held a position that afforded him the credential of full-time employment in a bird- related field. This entitled him to prestigious memberships,...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Smithsonian Years
    (pp. 35-69)

    AFTER RIDGWAY finished his survey work in Utah in the late summer of 1869, he made a beeline for the Smithsonian and began paid work as an illustrator. His parents were disappointed by his decision to go to Washington without even a brief stop at home. Ridgway, however, was delighted to get to the nation’s capital. In landing a permanent job at the Smithsonian, he owed everything to Baird. The assistant secretary understood the value of an older expert’s interest. He had been mentored by none other than John James Audubon, who named a new bird after Baird in 1843....

  8. CHAPTER THREE To Have or Have Not: America’s First Bird Organizations
    (pp. 70-113)

    BEFORE 1873, America had no organizations or publications devoted exclusively to ornithology. That year, however, the Cambridge-based Nuttall Ornithological Club (NOC) was born, and eventually gave birth in 1883 to a new organization with greater aspirations and a national focus: the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU). The founding of the AOU was a key moment in the professionalization of science and receives the lion’s share of scrutiny here. A handful of members in these organizations made fundamental decisions about who would be allowed into the top tiers of membership and who would not. How would the size and makeup of the...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Bird Study Collections
    (pp. 114-144)

    IF COMPREHENSION of the scientific value of study collections of birds was akin to knowing a language, these understandings would be broken up roughly like this: groupings of birds before Audubon’s death, or perhaps just up to Darwin’s writing ofOn the Origin of Species—until the late 1850s—were like snatches of conversation in a broken patois, half-audible down a long hallway. Collections existed, and sophisticated classification and morphological work had been undertaken with them for decades, but the tales they told about evolution were more or less incomprehensible, and furthermore, the debate about just what constituted a species...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Nomenclatural Struggles, Checklists, and Codes
    (pp. 145-182)

    DISCUSSING NOMENCLATURE and taxonomy—the names and relationships of things, especially in a scientific context—doesn’t really qualify as good cocktail party conversation. Broach the subject, and civilians are quickly gripped by a look of panic. Their eyes, if they haven’t already rolled far back into their skulls, begin darting furtively around the room in a desperate dance as they attempt to break free of the conversational shackles in which they have been placed. However, the topic is vital for the study of the history of science and what it has meant for the formation of modern biology. Biological classification...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Publications about Birds
    (pp. 183-227)

    PUBLICATIONS WERE important in the biological sciences during the last quarter of the nineteenth century for two key reasons beyond the information they conveyed. First, they established authority for their authors. This was not a simple task, because amateurs and professionals had contested notions about the “right” way to discuss birds, as well as whether the “advancement” of science was even a worthwhile goal. Thus, this was not just the territory of scientific publications. More popular works, such as theAmerican Naturalistand theOrnithologist and Oologist, also claimed a truth about birds: their authors and editors considered lyricism, anthropomorphism, and...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Standardizing the Colors of Birds: Ridgway’s Color Dictionaries
    (pp. 228-260)

    IF YOU DISCOUNT his relationship with the birds, Robert Ridgway had one long and passionate affair—condoned by his wife and supported by his employer. It was an affair with color, and it led to the book for which he is most widely known: his privately published 1912 workColor Standards and Color Nomenclature. Ridgway had a sensitivity for color descriptions of birds as young as age fourteen, when he first wrote to Spencer Fullerton Baird. “Bill pea-green; iris yellow; toes yellowish gray; claws dark-horn,” he wrote in describing a bird he wanted help identifying, and proceeded to describe another...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 261-266)

    ROBERT RIDGWAY succumbed to heart failure on March 25, 1929, at eight in the evening, at his home, Larchmound, in Olney, Illinois. His sister Lida Palmatier, visiting from San Diego, was with him when he died. His eulogy was given several days later by a local Olney Presbyterian minister, John B. Farrell, who noted Ridgway’s heroic singleness of purpose above all things. “He literally gave his life to this study, not primarily out of love for the science, but out of love for nature,” Farrell noted. The second part of this statement was not very accurate; Ridgway certainly loved nature,...

  14. Appendix: Robert Ridgway’s Published Works
    (pp. 267-300)
  15. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 301-302)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 303-326)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 327-336)
  18. Index
    (pp. 337-346)